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Reflections from Germany

Jason here, coordinator of 401(e). I had the privilege of traveling to Germany last month to study energy efficiency and sustainability policies over there thanks to a generous McCloy Fellowship from the American Council on Germany. I thought I’d share some thoughts on the experience. Due to the nature of the fellowship, much of my research focused on policy, but I’ll try not get too wonky here!
One of the first things I did was attend the 18th Annual International Passive House Conference in Aachen, Germany.  Aachen is a beautiful city in the state of North Rhine Westphalia and there were guests from all over the world.
Passive House is a very aggressive building standard, mostly geared to new construction in both the residential and commercial sector. There is, however, a passive standard being developed for retrofits of existing buildings and many retrofit projects were featured at the conference.  These are deep energy retrofits that aim to reduce a home’s energy use by 50% to 75%. In cold climates, these retrofits specify R-40 walls, R-60 roofs, and triple-glazed windows. This usually requires the removal and demolition of the home’s existing siding and roofing.  We actually have some Passive House experts in North Dakota such as Larry Mayer of Solution Design Inc and Malini Srivastava at NDSU.
At the conference, I attended a session featuring North American guests. They discussed some of the differences between Germany and the U.S. and Canada.  For instance, in Germany a home is considered a multi-generational investment whereas in America the average person stays in their home seven years. This puts decisions about retrofit projects in a much different context. Germany also has a higher share of renters. Many of their federal incentive programs were aimed at landlords and renters.
While in North Rhine Westphalia (NRW), I had the pleasure of meeting with staff focused on energy efficiency at the Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Agriculture, Nature Conservation and Consumer Protection.  They have a number of programs designed to spur more energy efficient buildings and renewable energy.  NRW is the most populous state in Germany and they seemed to take a great deal of pride in being a leader in Germany’s efforts toward a more sustainable energy sector.
Addressing climate change is the primary motivator for NRW, according to the officials I met with. They are experiencing hotter summers and more weather extremes, especially heavy rains. They estimate climate impacts could reach 800 billion Euro in Germany and over 70 billion Euro in NRW by 2050 without mitigation measures. Since their region has such a large industrial base as well as a lot of coal mining, it is said that if NRW does not reach their energy and climate goals, it is unlikely that Germany and Europe will be successful either.
While in Berlin, I met with Urte Hertrampf from the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy.  She was very gracious with her time and gave me a good overview of the German government’s efforts to promote energy efficiency.
Germany’s goal is to reduce Primary Energy Demand (PED) 20% below 2008 levels by 2020 and 50% by 2050. They are also aiming to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050.
Specific to buildings, they are aiming to reduce heat demand 20% by 2020 and primary energy demand in buildings 80% by 2050. Essentially, they’re working to make the existing building stock “almost climate neutral” by reducing heating demand and using renewables.  The amount of solar energy in Germany was impressive. Everywhere I turned, I saw solar panels. I had brief visits to the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland where I also saw a fair amount of solar energy.
Germany’s efforts to make buildings more energy efficient have been pretty successful.  Nearly 50% of new residential buildings and 33% of refurbished buildings participated in the energy efficient buildings program. Government-backed, low-interest loans (1%) provided by local lenders provide a nice incentive. This had me thinking about all the possibilities here in North Dakota with our state bank!  What I found particularly encouraging is that the 11.1 billion Euros that the German government invested in this program generated a total investment of 162 billion Euros. In other words, every 1 Euro in public funding led to 12 Euro in private investments per year. Plus, millions of Germans now live in much more comfortable, energy efficient and healthy homes than they would have otherwise.
All-in-all, I visited seven cities in Germany as well as brief trips to Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. I saw some very interesting projects which I hope to discuss more in future blog posts.  I’ll also try share some pictures!  It was a very productive trip and I learned a lot.  The German commitment to sustainability, their knack for problem-solving and their engineering prowess we impressive to say the least.  I’m grateful to the American Council on Germany’s McCloy Environmental Policy fellowship for providing me with the opportunity.